"There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'good job.'"
The key to success for any "Man vs." film is a good antagonist. A good antagonist can cure a multitude of sins, and at their best, can even make an unworthy protagonist worth rooting for simply by virtue of how bad their antagonist truly is. There are a number of factors that determine whether or not an antagonist is successful, but only one is crucial to their success. You have to believe that they truly think they're doing the right thing. There has to be a moment, or series of moments, in which you think to yourself, "I can see their point." You don't have to agree with them or endorse their evilness, but you have to understand that they feel in their heart of hearts that they're doing the right thing.
There's a moment fairly late in the terrific new film Whiplash where J.K. Simmons, who plays a ruthless instructor at a prestigious music conservatory, lays out his philosophy of teaching in no uncertain terms. His reasoning is sound, his logic is flawless, and the angry young artist that still lies dormant somewhere in the back of my subconscious thought, "he's exactly right." You would be hard pressed to find a better antagonist in cinema this year than Terence Fletcher, and as played by Simmons, he is one of the most incredibly three-dimensional antagonists of the new millennium.
Loosely based on writer/director Damien Chazell's experience in high school band, Whiplash tells the story of Andrew (Miles Teller), a first year student at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory in New York City. The film opens on him practicing drums in the music room late at night when Fletcher walks in to observe him. Carrying himself with the ramrod discipline of a military drill sergeant, Fletcher's mere presence is enough to strike fear into the hearts of even the students with whom he works, let alone a first year student like Andrew who views him more as legend than man.
Everywhere Andrew turns for the next few days, Fletcher seems to be there, watching, observing, haunting him. If the film achieves any immediate success, it's in establishing Fletcher's presence as a thing to both fear and desire. Andrew is in possession of some skill, but is clearly not yet ready for the big time. Nevertheless, Fletcher plucks him from his first year jazz ensemble to join his own Studio Ensemble, built by Fletcher from the ground up. A place where only the best of the best can thrive. Thus the stage is set for an epic showdown of Andrew's youthful arrogance and Fletcher's hair-trigger temper, and with both men possessing personalities that resemble powder kegs more than human beings, the real fun is in waiting for the fireworks to begin.
If Whiplash suffers from anything at all, it's far too many visual indulgences by a first time director eager to show off his skills behind the camera. Early in the film, Andrew goes to the movies with his dad (Paul Reiser) and we get rapid fire close-up shots of popcorn being shoveled into a tub, candy being placed on the counter, and a lid being slapped on a drink in a sequence that wouldn't seem out of place in Requiem for a Dream. It's an unnecessary flourish designed more to scream "look at what I can do" rather than further the story. The story is being furthered by the girl behind the concession counter, played by Melissa Benoist, as she silently flits with Andrew, foreshadowing a relationship to come, but the director doesn't seem to notice because he's too busy showing off. It's a minor complaint, but it tends to pop up more often than is really needed, particularly during the montage sequences of Andrew practicing until his hands bleed.
Teller proves that he is a capable actor, but he was gifted with a gem of a role. The bigger issue for Teller as an actor is that he is upstaged, in nearly every moment of the film, by Simmons. Even when Simmons is not on screen, which is easily half of the film, his presence looms so large in the wings as to devour the film whole. This is a towering performance by an actor normally known for his gregarious father figures, yet who never lets you forget he once shined as a white supremacist on HBO's Oz. It's the role of his career, and he doesn't miss a beat. He is simultaneously disciplined and unhinged, a lethal combination that is only amplified by his major shifts between one extreme and the other.
It's almost a shame to call him a "supporting actor" in this film, a phrase you will hear uttered often in the same breath as his performance along with the word "best," simply because the film seems to be supporting him rather than the other way around. He casts a long shadow, and one which never seems to fade, even after you've left the theater. The mere fact that I cannot seem to stop talking about his performance in this film is indication enough in my mind that he steals not just the film, but the very concept of what it means to be a great antagonist.
The film features some amazing music, music which forms the beating heart of this film, performed by musicians working at the top of their craft, but even that major element of the film seems to be in service of Simmons monumental performance. For a film with so many specters looming large over it, from the frequently cited Charlie Parker and Buddy Rich to the legendary halls of New York music like Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall which also make their way into many conversations, it still manages to be a one-man show. In fact, despite some great moments like a heavy handed dinner scene where Andrew is forced to contend with his jock cousins, Teller is not unlike Paul Dano in There Will Be Blood. He gives a performance that would be lauded as fantastic were he not appearing alongside someone giving one of the best performances of all time.
Whiplash is essential viewing for artists and musicians, who will cringe in sympathy with characters being pushed, both from without and within, by a drive to be the best at what they do. More than that, however, it is the chance to spend a little over 100 minutes in the company of some of the greatest music ever written being fawned over and having literal blood spilt in its name. And more than anything else, it's the chance to see one of those once-in-a-lifetime performances by J.K. Simmons. There are few greater joys for cinephiles than to see a journeyman character actor lift a film up and place it on his or her back. Whiplash gives you the chance to see that in action, and I cannot recommend any higher that you grasp that opportunity.
GO Rating: 4/5
[Photos via Box Office Mojo]